A low-key original

Saturday, 23 April 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman reviewed by Paratha Basu

Sri Lanka surprises one with its treasures, its places and people, its heritage as also a homespun affability that is easy to find as you look around.

I say surprises because it rarely trumpets its virtues to the world and instead, waits for you to discover things for yourself. Its creative corpus — books, film, art —does not quite capture the world’s attention in the way that Indian and Pakistani work appears to do, yet Lester James Peries’s Rekava was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes years before it had become stylish to talk about the festival, Michael Ondaatje’s roots grow stronger and Arthur C. Clarke chose to drop anchor in Serendipity in spite of strong inducements from many other places.

As in much else, so also in cricket. Not only was Sri Lanka the youngest Test nation to win the ICC World Cup — they did that in 1996 — but that year they also pioneered an audacious and explosive technique, ‘pinch hitting’, so far known only around baseball diamonds. Then, images of Sourav Ganguly waving his jersey over his head like a marauder at Lords are beamed at us ad infinitum, but few followed Arjuna Ranatunga as he took on the arrogant, and the then rampant, Aussies at their doorstep over the Muralitharan matter and, by his own admission, watched the Aussies get apoplectic, as a Pan-like smile spread across his vast expanse of face. Their team’s conduct on the field, unlike that of their cricket organizers off it, has set benchmarks for others, until Suraj Randiv bowled his deliberate last ball — no-ball — to Sehwag, that is.

And now, in another low-key original, a young Sri Lankan debutant author has given us, more than two years after it was published there, what I believe is the first full-bodied semi-fictional work concerning a Test cricketer. Shehan Karunatilaka, writer of rock songs and bass lines, has already won the country’s greatest literary honour, the Ondaatje-sponsored Gratiaen Prize, for Chinaman. In this wild, roller-coaster account, a dying, arrack-sodden, has-been sports writer searches for someone whom he, and many in the cricketing world, had labelled a genius left armer, a man who could bowl the chinaman and 14 variations of spin and once took 10 for 51 against a touring New Zealand side. Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew played just seven Tests in the 1980s, took 47 wickets and vanished without a trace in 1995.

The ‘quest’ theme has always been a potent one in fiction, whether it is someone’s search for identity, or shadowed meanings or the Holy Grail. Chinaman takes this assured route: Wijedasa Gamini Karunasena, the down-and-out-journalist, desperately tries to track down Mathew, who is untraceable — as everyone knows by the time the story begins — except that WG is not convinced that he is down-and-out or that Mathew is lost; not yet, at least. Also no one calls him WG, which is alright because Sobers was never sober and W.G. Grace had no grace, he remembers. That, then, is Shehan’s story. But was an enthusiast’s tortuous search for an ephemeral cricketer weighty enough to bag Sri Lanka’s most valued literary prize? The judges evidently looked beyond that, at the aspects of the book that were.

Anthony Burgess, introducing the 1969 edition of G.V. Desani’s masterpiece, All About Mr. Hatterr, had termed Desani’s prose, “a sort of creative chaos that grumbles at the restraining banks... it is... gloriously impure.” Whilst young Shehan has some way to go before he writes quite like Desani or Allan Sealy or Kurt Vonnegut, he pens his jargon, ruminations and dialogue not only with a fine self-consciousness, but also without appearing cute or too clever. The pages are replete with Shehan’s hip, fluorescent one-liners, word images and insights. The Bible, WG says at one comfortably sloshed point, must not be read as a travel brochure for the afterlife, but as a magnificent, tightly written work of fiction. On a more serious note, he says: “When the game was introduced in the colonies two centuries ago… at charity amusements, the lady folk were relegated to bowling; their impractical hoop dresses leading to the invention of the over arm action.”

Shehan mixes up the real and the imagined in a way you least expect him to; Test cricketers, crooked officials, local politicos, bombers and bookies weave in and out of his narrative, sharing time with imported call girls, cricket coaches with six fingers, an increasingly frustrated wife, an insolent son with impregnation on his mind and the few of WG’s friends who haven’t left him. Who is real? Who is not? It does not matter, actually. Shehan uses what Salinger called “verbal ballast” to manage them all well.

To me, Chinaman is a book that journeys beyond the search for Mathew to probe other realities: the reality of an island nation hesitant about its colonial past, the reality of a debilitating ethnic war which spread like an evil oil-spill, whilst an outraged world called the country a human rights violator, and, inevitably, the triumph of the system over the individual who is at odds with it. In an acerbic aside, on a day when the phrases aren’t flowing and the arrack is, WG has the final word: countries with the word democratic in them usually aren’t.

Like many a fine innings, Shehan’s book dips towards its middle, as if waiting to find a second wind, and then goes rollicking off again. It will not be fair to let on what finally happens, but even if you do not know much about Sri Lanka, dislike cricket and have never drunk arrack in your life, read Chinaman; it is an important book, more so because it does not try too hard to be that.